An Opening Through Which The Lava Flows Is Called Craters of the Moon: Lava and Cinders

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Craters of the Moon: Lava and Cinders

The earth had been stirred for many days. She shivered in anticipation. Then, clouds of sulphurous stench rose from the widening valley. Lava spurts from the fissure skyward, piling cinders and blobs around themselves. Prevailing southwesterly winds carried volcanic dust and drove the growing cinder cone to the northeast. Suddenly, as if it had stopped, the fountain tumbled back into the valley. The earth ceased her trembling: only the hot hiss remained.

But the earth is not finished. A coal-black cinder cone bulged outward from his side, opening a new wound. The lava spilled out, stopping blood. Earth consolidated itself and sent lava to the surface. The cones broke off, and the current carried them away. As the lava crust cooled from heat to darkness, veins of lava flowed down, pushing the flow. Like honey, lava spread across the landscape.

Just about two thousand years ago—just one tick of the geologic clock—an event similar to the one just described occurred at Craters of the Moon National Monument in south-central Idaho. But this was not the only volcanic event here. A large weakness in the Earth’s crust, known as the Great Rift, has on many occasions allowed molten rock to seep deep into the Earth’s interior.

The park’s Visitor Center is an ideal place to start exploring this gloomy lava land. The center houses books and exhibits related to the park’s geology, history, and biology. A video shows recent eruptions in Hawaii that are similar to eruptions at lunar craters centuries ago. Across the road, visitors can camp in the volcanic rock and cinders only campground (no hookups) and enjoy summer evening campfire events at the nearby amphitheater.

After you grab a map, campsite, and extra water (the only sources are the visitor center and campground), you can begin your drive along the seven-mile loop road to explore the area. Just past the campground, the road turns abruptly to the right as you reach the North Crater Flow section. Beyond the bend, a paved interpretive trail awaits those wanting to get a closer look at the lava. Along this trail, you’ll see the Triple Twist Tree – an ancient, grand limber pine. By counting the number of growth rings in this tree, the scientists estimate that the stream may have originated two thousand years ago, making it one of the youngest streams in the park.

You will learn that there are two types of basaltic lava flows found in lunar craters. One type is called pahoehoe (pronounced pa-hoy-hoy; Hawaiian word for rope). A cold but elastic crust formed above this flow, pushing the crust into pleats. Another form is aa (pronounced ah-ah; Hawaiian for “hard on the feet”). Aa lava, which is less gaseous and more sluggish than Pahoho, forms jagged fragments on its surface as it flows.

A short distance beyond the parking area is the North Crater Trail. This trail will take you to the crater where the lava flow originated.

Continuing on, you’ll turn left on the loop to get to Devil’s Orchard. Geologists believe that it is the site of ancient cinder cones that have been broken and shattered by erosion. You can take a self-guided route – with marked markers on the booklet – through the chunky ruins. You will learn about geology, birdlife and lichens and other plants. Lichens are associations of fungi and algae that can live on exposed rock. Look for purple dwarf monkey flowers that carpet the ground here in early summer.

If you continue along the loop road, you will reach Inferno Cone. A short, steep trail leads to the summit of these cinders. The summit provides a good vantage point for viewing the many cones to the southeast and northwest along the Great Rift. Standing at the summit, you can feel the full brunt of the park’s constant southwesterly winds. Big Cinder Butte, one of the largest purely basaltic cinder cones in the world, is the tallest cone in the Southeast.

From late spring to late summer, many of the more than 200 species of native plants dot the slopes of the cones in the Moon Pit. Dwarf buckwheat, with its pom-pom-like flower clusters, and bitterroot, whose bright white petals contrast sharply with dark centers, are particularly common.

Spatter cones are the next interesting structure along the loop. Nowhere can you find better examples of spatter cones than in the craters of the moon in the continental United States. It was formed when the Earth threw out bubbles of lava that stuck together. A cone here has snow throughout the year. This is because lava rocks almost always contain gas bubbles, which act as insulators.

A spur road off the loop leads to a frozen cascade of lava to the Tree Molds parking area. From here, you’ll walk to the tree molds, which are formed when lava flows over trees and then cools, often leaving rocks with imprints of burning trunk bark. You can take the Wilderness Trail from the parking area into the rarely visited Craters of the Moon Wilderness Area. If you are backpacking you will need a free permit to enter the wilderness area.

The Wilderness Trail branches off the Tree Molds Trail down to Paihoho Stream and crosses the stream. Rock cairns mark the path across the rugged, pleated surface. At the far end, you’ll find an old dirt road that stretches about four miles through the desert. If you follow this road, you’ll enjoy a gentle hike through wide-open scenery with little dust and worry to worry about.

After you cross the desert border, you’ll pass Big Cinder Butte and Half Cone and then Trench Mortar Flat. The flat’s name comes from the lava tubes that form like tree molds, except that the lava shapes itself around a vertical tree trunk. After you hike Coyote Butte, you’ll come to Echo Crater – one of the area’s best campsites for backpackers.

On our first and most recent visit to this desert, we camped at Echo Crater. During our first visit, we set up camp on the rim of the crater and hiked around all day looking for waterholes, cracks, and other features noted on the geologic map. On our last night there, we heard and saw a prairie falcon flying around the crater. After we watched them for a while, we discovered that they are a male and a female that hunt and protect their nest on the rim of Echo Crater.

On one visit in the 1980s, we reached Echo Crater in the dark. The wind is constant, so we camp inside the crater for protection. As it happens, the crater is shaped like a crescent—a high west rim opening to a lower east side. As we began to cook our dinner, the moon rose a full, bright, orange-red ball, casting light over our campsite and the crater.

In the late 1990s, we were looking for mapped features that formed in lava flows, such as lava tube caves and lava pools. Lava can flow like a river, and as the lava comes in contact with cool air at the top, it can form a crust that hardens and stops moving. But the lava crust is a good insulator, so hot lava can still flow below. Eventually, the still-fluid lava may flow away leaving behind a tube. If part of the roof finally collapses, there is a lava tube cave. If another part of the roof collapses near the other collapse, the dense crust in the space between them is a lava pool.

On the Craters of the Moon map, two lava bridges are listed, Bridge of Tears and Bridge of the Moon. We went to the Bridge of Tears and camped next to it and also explored Moss Cave and Amphitheater Cave, which were formed along the same lava tube as the bridge. We had heard rumors that the moon bridge might have collapsed and we wanted to go to where it was supposed to be and see if we could find it. Not being able to find it can be taken as a sign that it has collapsed.

After camping at the Bridge of Tears, we set off on a hiking trail that would take us directly to the bridge to the mapped location of the moon. After starting, we had to skirt around an elliptical shaped depression. We notice that an opening appears at the opposite end of the depression. So we decided to take some time to find out. It turned out to be a cave with openings on two sides. The map didn’t show this feature, so we took notes about it with its GPS coordinates. We proceeded to bridge the mapped location of the moon, but could not find it. We headed back through the desert but spent another night.

After hiking the next day, we turned in our write-up about the unmapped cave to the rangers at the visitor center and asked if the feature had ever been described before. It didn’t happen, we have to name it. Because we are twin brothers and the cave had two openings, we called it Twin Cave. However, it will never appear on any maps, as the Park Service is trying to protect the caves from vandalism and does not want to give out their locations.

In August 2016, we went back to Craters of the Moon Desert to visit “our” cave after almost 20 years and found that one opening had been enlarged due to the collapse of part of the roof, but the other part was about the same as before. We call it a “Twin Selfie” near the entrance to post on our social media pages.

Echo Crater – A dirt road leads out into the desert until you reach two cinder cones, The Sentinel and The Watchman. Just south of here, in 1879, JW Powell and Arthur Ferris of Arco, Idaho, left markers at Vermilion Chasm during a scouting trip to determine whether the craters of the moon contained enough water to graze livestock. It didn’t happen. Then, in 1921, Robert Limbert, WL Cole and a dog headed north from Minidoka to explore this virtually unknown region. During their journey across the AA stream, they were unable to sleep at night due to the sharpness of the lava. The dog cut his legs, so the men had to carry him away. After the water receded, they were able to locate the waterhole by observing the flight of the pigeons. Despite these hardships, these two men were fascinated by the land and gave it many of the descriptive names that are still known today. Thanks to Limbert’s reports, photographs, and lobbying and an article he wrote for National Geographic, the Craters of the Moon were declared a National Monument in 1924.

Back on the road, after rejoining the loop, you will continue towards the cave area. Pahoho coolant flows in advance through channels or tubes under the shell. As the eruption subsides, the lava can escape from the tube, leaving the crust to support itself. The Indian Tunnel is an example of a lava tube in which much of the crust has collapsed. Because of this position, you don’t need to carry a flashlight to explore the subway-sized Indian tunnel. Just outside the tunnel, a ring of rocks is the remains of a wind break where Shoshone Indians once camped while hunting deer and other wildlife in the park. However, you will need a flashlight to explore the other caves. Boy Scout Cave is particularly interesting. Throughout the year, the cave has a thick layer of ice, which is covered by a layer of water in the summer.

Moon craters are also famous as part of NASA’s efforts to send humans to the real moon. Many astronauts came here to study the area as an example of what they would encounter when they landed on the moon.

To find the Craters of the Moon, drive 24 miles east of Cary or 18 miles west of Arco along the combined routes of US 20, 26, and 93 in Idaho. The monument is open year-round, although the loop road is usually only open from late April to mid-November. Cross-country skiing is available in winter. For more information, write to Craters of the Moon National Monument, Box 29, Arco, ID 83213 or call headquarters at (208)527-1300, visitor information at (208)527-1335.

The Craters of the Moon National Monument website is at:

To learn more about lava, see the Wikipedia entry about lava at:

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